Rome's Rabbi: During Synagogue Visit, Pope Should Say Catholics Must Not Try to Convert Jews

Chief rabbi hopes Francis will deliver to a broader audience the gist of a recent Vatican document that says Catholics should not actively seek to convert Jews and should work with them against anti-Semitism.

Anna Momigliano
Anna Momigliano
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An image showing Pope Francis leaning in prayer on the Western Wall
Pope Francis praying at the Western Wall during his 2014 visit to the Holy Land.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Anna Momigliano
Anna Momigliano

Rome’s chief rabbi hopes Pope Francis will send the message that Catholics should not actively seek to convert Jews when he makes his first visit as pontiff to the city’s main synagogue on Sunday.

Such a statement would send a clear message to Catholic faithful around the world, following up on a recent Vatican document, which states that the Church does not support any active missionary work among Jews, Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said.

It would help spread a message that otherwise “may not reach a broader public,” Di Segni told Haaretz in an interview this week ahead of Francis’ visit, the third by a pope following those by his predecessors John Paul II in 1986 and Benedict XVI in 2010.

“If the Church says the Jewish people must be appreciated and respected but writes it solely in a theological document, not many people are going to understand the message,” Di Segni said. “On the other hand, if the pope visits a place of fundamental historical significance like the Great Synagogue of Rome, then the message of friendship and respect is clearly understood and manifested.”

The document in question – entitled “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable” – was issued last month by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, and is considered a key step forward in relations between the two faiths. It clarifies that the Church does not actively seek to convert Jews, and pledges to “do all that is possible with our Jewish friends to repel anti-Semitic tendencies.”

“The timing between the new document and the visit, although not planned, is a good one: The new document shows a commendable way forward for certain issues that have historically been sensitive for the relationship between Jews and Catholics,” Di Segni said.

The document marked the 50th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council declaration that rejected the concept of collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death and opened the door for dialogue between the two sides.

The new document reaffirms that God never revoked the covenant he made with the Jews, dismissing so-called replacement theology – the long-held Catholic belief that the New Testament supersedes the old one and Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people.

The Vatican is now saying that the Jews “are still the chosen people, even though we don’t believe in Jesus, and still have a place in what they call salvation even as non-believers in Jesus. On a practical level it means that Jews don’t need to be converted. Judaism is considered a religion which is part of their religious system and deserves to be respected,” Di Segni said.

“It’s an important element, because replacement theology implies that Judaism is somewhat a dead branch that has run its course. It implies that [Jews] had fulfilled their purpose 2,000 years ago, leaving them exposed to continuous attacks, insults, and lack of respect,” said the rabbi, who already led Rome’s small Jewish community when Benedict made his visit to the synagogue exactly three years ago on Sunday.

Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni.Credit: AP

Di Segni, along with other leading Jewish figures, had strongly criticized the 2007-2008 decision by Benedict to allow the use in the reintroduced old-style Latin Mass of a prayer for the conversion of Jews. The move had been part of Benedict’s attempts to warm ties with ultra-traditionalists who rejected the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

While the new document does not eliminate the controversial prayer, it diminishes its importance, the rabbi said.

“The problem lay in the text, reintroduced by Benedict XVI himself, in which the Church prayed for the Lord to enlighten the hearts of Jews so that they would recognize Jesus,” Di Segni noted. “This new document clarifies – and in fact reduces – the impact of this prayer. In short, it says that Christians shouldn’t give up on the hope [that Jews will recognize Jesus] but at the same time the Church should not act in an organized fashion to convert Jews.”

While he has welcomed the Vatican’s increased openness under Francis, Di Segni, Italy’s most prominent rabbi, has not always seen eye-to-eye with the Argentine pope, particularly on proposals for interfaith prayer and theological dialogue – direct discussion and comparison of Jewish and Christian religious beliefs.

In 2014, ahead of Francis’ visit to the Holy Land, Di Segni told Haaretz in an interview that “from the theological point of view, there is nothing to discuss” with the Vatican.

Pope Benedict XVI shakes hands with chief rabbi Riccardo Di Segni at Rome's main synagogue. January 17, 2010. Credit: Reuters

Later that year, he declined to attend an interfaith prayer for peace organized by the pope with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and then-Israeli President Shimon Peres.

“I was in Israel. Had I been in Rome, perhaps I would have gone, but I don’t agree with mixing religion and politics,” Di Segni told Haaretz in this week’s interview. “Even more so I am skeptical about the idea of multi-faith prayer. When dialogue and prayer are not kept separate I perceive a tendency to what is called ‘erasing differences.’ I think we should sincerely respect each other’s prayers while maintaining our different traditions.”

There will be speeches by Francis, Di Segni and other Jewish community leaders, but no prayers in Sunday’s papal visit at the grand, eclectic-styled Tempio Maggiore, as the synagogue located on the banks of the River Tiber is known in Italian.

Francis will also honor the memory of 2-year-old Stefano Gaj Tache, who was killed in a 1982 terror attack by Palestinian gunmen on Jewish worshippers outside the synagogue.

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